Posted January 11, 2021
The email’s subject line was prophetic: “Bad house waiting for a fire.“
LifeSpin’s executive director Jacquie Thompson sent that email to city hall officials Aug. 26, but she’d been warning about the house for more than a year.
In April 2019, LifeSpin presented a report to city hall about housing that included photos and addresses of several derelict residences.
A house at 689 King St. was one of them.
Take a closer look
This August, Thompson said she began pushing the city again to take a closer look at the residence. She provided copies of emails between herself and city officials, including Ward 4 Coun. Jesse Helmer.
In her Aug. 26 email, Thompson included an image of the house with the conclusion: “Still here, still dangerous, still unfit for humans.”
A city hall building official replied Sept. 3, saying the house was placed under two orders in March, one to make the property safe and one to prohibit occupancy. An inspector visited Sept. 1 and “we will be following up further,” the official emailed.
On Oct. 15, Thompson emailed again, saying she’d driven by and seen many people going in and out of the building.
That same day, a city hall official replied, saying the order to make the building safe had been complied with.
City records show the property has been the subject of at least four property bylaw violations and was under a make safe order issued earlier in 2020.
But on Nov. 22, a fire in the house saw one woman sent to hospital and four others treated on site for smoke inhalation. Firefighters rescued 20 cats.
Fire officials said at the time the blaze appeared to have started in a boarded-up area at the back of the house.
“The house is broken up in some apartments and some are boarded up, so we had some people living in areas that were not habitable,” London fire platoon chief Kirk Loveland said the next day.
Developing an inventory
The fire is just one example of how the slow and ineffective process the city uses to deal with substandard housing and vacant buildings is worsening the housing crisis in London, Thompson said.
“Here we are a year and a half later and the homes that were in that (2019) report, places that needed to be dealt with because they were dangerous, they’re burning down one by one because nobody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Thompson said.
Frustrated by city hall, LifeSpin, a city agency helping low-income neighbourhoods, is developing its own inventory of poor housing and surveying clients to get a handle on the scope of the problem in London.
“We need to identify these properties because apparently it is difficult and time-consuming for the city to do it,” Thompson said. “How many houses are in bad shape? We’d like to find out.”
Derelict homes put tenants in danger, increase the risk of fires and bring down property values in surrounding neighbourhoods, she said.
“Low-income families are the hidden poor,” LifeSpin’s report to the city said.
“They do not want officials to see them living in unsafe dwellings or in overcrowded conditions, because they fear having their children taken away. They are thus systemically silenced and have no voice to demand change. It is easy to spot some of the property standard violations with a quick drive around our city.”
Explaining the process
The LifeSpin report proposed a long list of measures to improve London’s housing stock, with improving property standards one of the keys.
In response to the LifeSpin report, city hall staff reiterated council can determine if a particular area “would benefit from proactive enforcement,” but in most cases, bylaw enforcement responds to complaints.
“The process involves providing the property owner a reasonable time to address the issue prior to any enforcement actions being taken,” city staff said at the time. “If tenants are concerned with the safety of their building, they are asked to inform the city immediately.”
City staff elaborated on the process for this story.
A complaint about an unkempt yard prompts an inspection. If there’s a violation, a work order is issued to the property owner with a two-week deadline. If the work isn’t done in that time, a city-appointed contractor clears the yard and the property owner is billed.
A complaint about an unsafe residence can take longer to solve. A city building or code compliance inspector can determine if a building is unsafe, and issue a make-safe order. That order will include steps and a timeframe, but there’s no set deadline in city bylaws to get work done.
If the deadline in the order passes, the city can have the building repaired or demolished, and prohibit occupancy.
That final step, a do-not-inhabit order, is a last resort.
“We typically prefer to work with the property owner before proceeding to the next steps,” city staff said in an email.
‘There are lots of issues’
The city has made progress in tackling substandard housing, starting the vulnerable occupancy program in 2016 after a fire in an unlicensed group home, said Helmer, who chairs council’s community and protective services committee.
And council expects a report from the bylaw department early in 2021 on better ways to secure vacant properties, he said.
The city will demolish buildings now, a change from the past, Helmer said.
“Despite that, there are lots of issues of housing throughout the community and I do think we need to be open to the idea that there is more that can be done and we can be even more effective,” he said.
“We have to be making sure rules we have in place are actually solving problems . . . (and) in a timely fashion, because I think sometimes one of the most frustrating things is that it takes a long time to get these issues resolved.”
Several years ago, council narrowly rejected publishing lists of housing units that had violated the fire code, Helmer said. “I think there is value in publicizing that kind of information so tenants know . . . the safety record of the property they are thinking of renting.”
It might be time to bring that idea forward again, Helmer said.
As for 689 King, the building was under a do-not-inhabit order, he said. But it can be difficult to keep people from repeatedly squatting in a building.
Helmer’s ward contains many properties LifeSpin keeps an eye on.
Among them is an Adelaide Street North home where tenants live with broken and boarded-up windows and without proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, said LifeSpin community advocate Leia Beland.
There’s simply nowhere else they can afford to live in London, she said. “They’re stuck and they’re poor and they have no way out of it.”
Where can tenants turn?
A tenant named Devon, who asked that his last name not be published, said he knows first-hand the difficulties of getting out of an apartment with problems. In his case, it’s roaches and bed bugs.
After failing to get action from the property managers, he complained to city hall, Devon said. But trying to get action from city hall was a confusing and nerve-wracking process.
The bylaw department closed his file after building managers produced two work orders for pest treatment, dated months before his complaint, he said.
He’s continued to file complaints and seek work orders — like a request to repair the chain on the deadbolt — but isn’t sure where to turn next.
Meanwhile, he’s afraid of reprisals. But Devon also has some new support in London, as a member of a recently launched city chapter of ACORN Canada.
ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) Canada bills itself as a national group of low- and moderate-income people working on social and economic justice issues on a community-by-community basis. It has 140,000 members in two dozen neighbourhood chapters in nine cities.
“London . . . has always had problems with landlords, and the pandemic has exacerbated that, for sure,” said Nawton Chiles, co-chair of London ACORN.
“Things are a lot more visible now. These problems were always there, it’s just that people are just seeing them now . . . Landlords aren’t doing proper COVID protections, landlords aren’t doing proper pest control.”
‘I’m living in a dive’
Bed bugs, rodents, poor plumbing and electrical systems and structural damage were just some of long list of problems reported in a 2018 LifeSpin tenant survey that the agency presented to council last year.
LifeSpin plans to redo its survey of families facing housing issues in January, and start building an inventory of substandard and outright derelict housing via its Facebook page, Thompson said.
The survey only describes problems, she said. The inventory is necessary to show the extent of the problem and where to focus the city’s attention.
“We’re only finding out about problems from clients coming forward and saying, ‘I’m living in a dive,’” Thompson said. “We need folks to identify the properties in the neighbourhoods where they live.”
City hall has tackled the problem of homeless people living by the Thames River, and congratulated itself for doing so, she said, but it isn’t working hard enough to force repairs on homes that deteriorate so badly that some people must turn to shelters and encampments.
“Why can’t we do some prevention rather than always trying to clean up the mess that we’ve created?” Thompson said.
She vows to return to council in 2021 with another set of recommendations.
“We want to start putting together another presentation to council, because clearly they didn’t listen to the first one.”
LifeSpin tenant survey
The London agency surveyed 250 families in 2018. Problems reported included:
53%: Damaged walls and floors
30%: Pests, bugs or rodents
21%: Electrical services
11%: Broken/missing fire and carbon monoxide detectors
Article by Randy Richmond and Megan Stacey for the London Free Press